The Oxford System.

So over the next two weeks, I will sit seven three hour exams constituting 88% of my degree. Compared to most studying PPE here, that’s not too stressful. Those that opted at the end of first year for economics have nine exams coming up to decide their grade entirely. My fellow philosophers similarly have all hanging on the next fortnight, over eight exams. It’s only because I took the rare option of writing a thesis that I will enter Exam Schools with something in the bag.

Not that this is distinctive to PPE. All students of the arts and humanities here can tell a similar story: their assessment is insanely skewed towards the very end, with little if anything coming before right now. But this is, it seems, distinctive to Oxford. I didn’t realise it until after Prelims in first year, when a member of the press asked me as I came out what I thought about the ‘Oxford system’. Only then did I learn how rare it was nowadays to have no coursework, and not to be assessed module by module.

I can’t decide how much there is to be said for conducting things this way, but there are some obvious virtues. I’ve been able to spend the last two years reflecting on what I’ve learnt, adding to my knowledge through extra reading as and when, during the holidays, I’ve discovered new avenues, and I haven’t had the constant mindset of being tested hanging over me. In other words, the learning has been purer. I don’t think it would have felt so valuable in itself if I hadn’t left exam technique and revision until the final few months.

But the flip-side is obviously the insane pressure levels, once Finals finally arrive. Fortunately for me, I don’t feel the heat. No doubt my unconditional offer for graduate study has a lot to do with that, but I know from past experience that I can manage exam seasons better than most. I often feel like I even revel in and excel under the importance of the time period.

And yet the same obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, and it makes one return to that common concern: is this really the best way to assess the quality of a student? Does my ability to think on my feet in timed conditions really reflect accurately upon the skills I’ve acquired through tutorials these past three years? Is it not worth at least contemplating alternative assessment techniques?

There’s undeniably a place for the assessment of quick-thinking, how well one can bring one’s tools to an unseen problem and pick out the appropriate acquired knowledge. But this great a place? In most cases, 100%? And if that’s the rationale for examinations, then why give me six months – yes, six – to prepare?

I’m ready, and I won’t resent going through the process one final time. But I also won’t regret the fact that exams won’t follow me through to graduate study. From now on, I’ll be judged solely on the basis of work that I’ve fine-tuned, and that will surely be a better reflection of my academic quality.


3 thoughts on “The Oxford System.

  1. There’s something about the quiet hum of an exam hall that I find almost soothing. I hope I’m not alone in that.

    On the subject of whether it is a good system, I think it very much depends on what you are studying. On how many times in your future career you are going to be asked to give opinions or make decisions based only on the information you have in your brain – without looking things up.

    Skewing things towards the final exams gives people a reason to revise the things they first learnt, rather than forgetting them entirely after the first semester. In some subjects this happens naturally, with later concepts building on earlier ones, but in some subjects it is possible to complete the later courses without even thinking about what you have learnt before. A recipe for forgetting if ever I saw one!

  2. Hmm, this is not one to get me started on. I agree exams ought to have some place in assessment, but the Oxford system is ridiculous.

    To begin with, there’s the supposed link between exams and the gender finals gap – though I don’t know if the evidence supports that theory. At least one of the ways in which exams are supposed to advantage boys is that they suit those who are good at superficial confident bullshit. Whether the gender claim holds or not, I think it’s true that this sort of character is likely to be better at exams, and frankly I think that PPE disproportionately rewards superficial confident bullshit. Moreover, I always find it amazing to read the despair in examiners’ reports at the caution and unoriginality of most answers – trotting out typical tutorial essays. What do they expect? If you put people in a high pressure situation, and give them little time to think, of course most people will play it safe. Frankly, it’s something of an achievement to take such bright Oxford minds and put them in a position where they can’t help but write drivel.

    One obvious solution would be to make a thesis compulsory (if not a number of extended essay courseworks). It would do students good to study something in real depth (given PPE’s inevitable jack-of-all trades approach), and it would provide those with original minds the space to properly work out their ideas.

    Given how integral the tutorial system is both to the culture of Oxford, and to the development of its students, I think its a bit weird that the skills produced there aren’t tested. One way would be to get a tutorial grade from your tutors on how well you presented ideas, responded to challenges, thought on your feet, engaged with others. I’d be worried about the lack anonymity, and so perhaps objectivity, but I still think its odd that these crucial skills are ignored in assessment.

  3. I think that the ideal situation would be a mixture of assessment by coursework and by final exams. This is the case for most science subjects and also for some arts subjects – as a music student I entered finals with 3/8 of my degree completed in the form of coursework. History students too enter Schools having completed 2/7 of their degree as an extended essay and a dissertation.

    Also, as a music students, we are set several different types of written exam: some are the standard “three essays in three hours” but for some papers the range of questions is much broader and we are only required to answer one or two questions in the three hours. This encourages more creative thinking, the use of more in-depth knowledge and a more sustained and refined argument in the essay. There is also a paper where we have to write one essay in the three hours but on a text that we have not seen until the exam – thus one has to analyse a text, work out what to say about it and write an essay in three hours. I would have thought that this approach to the design of exam papers could be carried across to other subjects and perhaps would make the assessment of students’ abilities more accurate.

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